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A dirge for the harp
Dan Levin
April 18, 1977
There is bad blood between preservationists like Brian Davies (above) and the Newfoundland fishermen who earn extra income from the slaughter of harp seals
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April 18, 1977

A Dirge For The Harp

There is bad blood between preservationists like Brian Davies (above) and the Newfoundland fishermen who earn extra income from the slaughter of harp seals

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The eyes get to you first, huge sad eyes, set against a coat of pure white fluff. The harp seals of Newfoundland are only days old and appealing enough to be in an infant's crib. But weeks after visiting them you do not think of lullabies. You think of men with clubs, and of bloody carcasses, and of the frantic huffing sounds of mother seals, vainly searching for their young.

Those eyes gaze down from posters all over the world. They stare out from the pages of magazines. Talk show guests rage on about the slaughter. And all the furor was started by one man, a 42-year-old Canadian animal lover and publicist named Brian Davies. He told the world about the seal hunt, and two weeks ago, his blue eyes glinting, he sat in the gallery of the U.S. Senate, listening to a discussion of Resolution 142, "urging the Canadian Government to reassess its policy of permitting the killing of newborn harp seals." The resolution had breezed through the House, and now Davies saw it through the Senate, the first congressional resolution to protest a wildlife policy of a foreign government. Davies called it "the most significant thing ever in animal welfare." It was his work that made it possible, and at week's end only one thought could make him stop smiling: Would he and his wife, his son and daughter, the family's four cats, four dogs and three horses be able to continue living in Canada?

For nine years, as director of the 200,000-member International Fund for Animal Welfare, Brian Davies has endeavored to save the baby harp seals of Newfoundland, to stop the annual spring hunt. He is also responsible for the ban on exporting the river otters of Thailand, which were being killed for their pelts or sold to pet stores; he is campaigning to preserve the world's dwindling population of Mediterranean monk seals; he successfully lobbied for a manatee sanctuary in Florida; and in the past five years he has airlifted 58 "problem" polar bears from a Manitoba town, where they were being shot during their migration.

But the harp seal pup is his principal project. It has resulted in more 'controversy and donations for the IFAW than all the other campaigns put together, and it has made Brian Davies a prophet without honor in his own country. To the fishermen of Newfoundland, where sealing is a rite of almost religious import, as well as a commercial boon, Davies is an opportunist or "a con man," as one government official puts it. Charles Friend, a publicity man for Canada's fisheries department, says, "The seal hunt gives the IFAW people a million-dollar income, and Davies is the last guy who wants to see it end."

During last month's hunt, Roy Pilgrim, the leader of the Newfoundland Concerned Citizens Committee, said, "If the baby harp seal had the face of a pig there would be no problem." That is a familiar argument, and an interesting one, but Davies responded, "The beauty of the harp seals is the only hope they have. It is why they are killed, and if we cannot save them because of it, we cannot save any animals, ever."

There are answers to every criticism of Brian Davies and his campaign, and answers to the answers. The manatee, for example, does have the face of a pig but it has little commercial value. When Pilgrim and his associates said that killing baby seals was their right, Davies replied, "Your right? To club infant seals to death? To drive the mothers away while they're nursing?"

Other observers, pro and con, were more dispassionate. George Reiger, a writer for Audubon magazine, said, "People don't like to think of an animal that looks like a baby and cries like a baby being clobbered. Of course they don't worry about their lamb chops." Said Dr. Victor Scheffer, an eminent West Coast mammalogist, "I think that wildlife management people should consider the public's feelings, as well as questions of science. Even with a safe quota, if there is strong sentiment against the hunt, I say, 'Don't do it.' "

Even the issue of the possible extirpation of the harp seal because of the annual slaughter is clouded. Scientists from the Canadian Government say the hunt poses no danger, that the harp seal is not on the brink of extinction. Edward Roberts, leader of the opposition government of Newfoundland and Labrador, claims that the harp seal "is the most scientifically protected animal species in the world. If the herd were not kept in check it would devour millions of pounds of fish, which is the economic base to a large portion of the population of Newfoundland and Labrador." Brian Davies and his followers contend the seal could be gone tomorrow. David M. Lavigne, Ph.D., a zoologist at Ontario's University of Guelph, wrote last year in the National Geographic, "Even under present hunting quotas the harp seal may be reduced to precarious levels before the end of this century." But Dr. Keith Ronald, dean of Guelph's College of Biological Science, is awaiting the results of a new study. "I believe Lavigne's natural mortality figures were too high," he says.

In the absence of facts, the issue is clearly one of conflicting values, epitomized by the products of the hunt—mere trimmings for slippers, wallets and key-rings and, ironically, tiny white toy seals.

As this year's hunt approached, Davies rented a motel in northern Newfoundland at Pistolet Bay, due west of the ocean ice floes where the harp seals would be born. He invited more than 50 journalists from Canada, the U.S. and Europe, offering them helicopter service to the floes. When he arrived at Pistolet Bay he was greeted by a surly crowd of more than 300 locals, which was barely kept at bay by a handful of Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The crowd roped off the helicopters and began yelling things like, "We'll kill Brian Davies for calling us murderers." Davies, ever the showman, told one interviewer, "This is as bad as the early days of the Nazi takeover." He wired Prime Minister Trudeau, Prince Philip of England and the American embassy in Ottawa, and on the morning the hunt was to start 100 mounties arrived by bus.

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